Tasting Re-Cap: Exotic Grapes of Italy
We continued our Global Vineyard Passport Series of tastings last night with “Exotic Grapes of Italy”. That is, we tasted wines made from unusual- uncommon- and generally unknown- grapes. The word “exotic” is a little misleading as applied to these grapes, as the word implies non-native varietals. While some of the grapes were introduced from elsewhere in years BC, they may now be considered “indigenous” varietals.
This particular tasting is part of a series of 3 classes in which we will focus on lesser-known varietals from different countries. We started with Italy as that country has many hundreds of known grape varietals, and probably many more yet recognized. This stems from its long history of trade and wine production that helped introduce a large number of varietals from all over Europe and Asia from Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Venetian, and Genoan colonies, colonists, and merchants. A lot of these ancient imports remain in cultivation as many Italian winemakers have championed the preservation of venerable varietals, in some cases with the support of the Italian government. A case in point is wine producer Mastroberardino who was given government consent and encouragement to re-cultivate Pompeii with its ancient varietals.
There are so many unusual grapes in Italy that we limited our tasting to Southern Italy and Sardegna.
Name That Grape!
Verdeca has long been grown in Apulia, where it may have originated and in which it is one of the grapes that comprises several of its DOC – Denominazione di Origine Controllata, including Gravina DOC, Locorotondo DOC, Martina Franca DOC, Ostuni DOC and San Severo DOC. Its origin is not without dispute, however; it may have come from the Balkan peninsula – possibly Greece or Croatia. Verdeca produces wines with crisp flavors, a bit of acidity, and floral aromatics.
Wine: Messapia Verdeca Bianco Salento IGT 2011
100% Verdeca, fermented and aged in stainless steel. The wine is produced by Leone de Castris Winery, whose origins date to 1665 and which produced the first Italian rose to be bottled and sold in Italy, in 1943.
The wine drinks very clean and fresh as, apparently, typifies the varietal. It has some citrusy notes with lemon and tangerine, and also a bit of brine. It is lighter bodied, but has a fairly full mouth. The wine seemed most similar to Verdicchio or Grillo, and Paul likened it to a Cotes du Rhone. This is a light and easy drinker that was enjoyed by all tasters. It was the favorite white of the evening of Taylor and Rex, who wanted to drink it with lobster.
Mantonico (Bianco) is indigenous to Calabria, and comprises several of the region’s IGT and DOC. Mantonico has a long history of cultivation in the region, and its first, known mention is believed to date to 1601 in a work of the Italian writer Girolamo Marafioti. DNA analysis suggests that Mantonico bianco might be a parent varietal of another Calabrian native, the red grape Gaglioppo. It is said to have some characteristics of Garganega (predominantly found in Soave). Given remaining questions about its taxonomic identification, it is unclear whether it is native to Calabria, or of other Mediterranean origin.
Wine: Librandi Efeso Mantonico Val di Neto IGT 2010
100% Mantonico fermented in stainless steel and barrique, aged one year in new French Barriques. The Librandi estate was founded in 1952 in Calabria, where it is committed to reviving the region’s indigenous varietals. They named this wine “Efeso” after the ancient city of Ephesus, located on the West coast of modern Turkey
This is a fuller-bodied wine with a ton of character. It is nicely balanced with acid, stone-fruits, and mineral. I was immediately taken by the “spiciness” of this wine, Bob and Rex thought “White Burgundy”, and Marisa and Evan found buttery vanilla notes. we most agreed with Bill when he said, “There is nothing timid about it”. This was the clear white favorite of Kim, Elaine (whose birthday it was!), Paul, Marissa, Mike, and Milton.
Nuragus (di Caligari) is the most widely-planted white grape on Sardegna. It is known for its high-yield and strong acidity. The grape has long been grown on the island but, as with many other grapes in this tasting, it is unclear whether it is native, or whether it was introduced by the Phoenicians, who had colonies on the island by the middle of the 1st century BC. “Nuragus” takes its name from mortar-less stone-towers (Nuraghe) that can be found throughout Sardegna and which date to the 2nd-1st centuries BC.
Wine: S’elegas Nuragus di Cagliari DOC 2011
100% Nuragus, grown at 200 meters above sea level in Trexenta. Grapes are gently pressed, fermentation in stainless steel. This is produced by Argiolas, whose family has a keen interest in promoting Sardegnan biodioversity by protecting and preserving native varietals – including Nuragus, Caricagiola, Monica, and Bovaleddu, among others.
This is quite an aromatic wine, with flowers, citrus, and also some earthy “funk” on the nose. It is fuller-bodied, has ample acid, and feels intense and concentrated in the mouth. This really has tons of character. The aromatics and citrus resemble a Traminer from Alto Adige or, less so, a Greek Malagouzia. Bob and I were absolutely smitten with this wine. It was also the favorite of Rachel and Evan. t was not enjoyed by all, however, as its strong character inspired rather divergent opinions. In the middle were Kim, who “wouldn’t throw it away”, and Mike for whom it took two tries to realize that it was ok.
There is very little written about this grape (but see here). It seems to be grown exclusively in Calabria and is often confused with Calabria’s other main, red grape – Gaglioppo. Like the other grapes tasted, it may well be native to Calabria – but could have been imported by more merchants. It produces wines with good tannin and acidity, spice, and dark fruits.
Wine: Magno Megonio Val di Neto Rosso IGT 2010
100% Magliocco, stainless fermentation, aged 16 months in French barriques. This is produced by Librandi, who have been working with the grape (and other local varietals) for years. The “Magno Megonio” name refers to a Roman centurion (commander of a typical 100-man unit, or century, in the Roman army) who owned a portion of Librandi’s current estate.
On opening, this wine has soft, round tannins with light acidity. Taylor and Joe were instant fans of the nose – on which I smelled green pepper and graphite, Evan has caramel-y butter, and Marisa noticed pepper. The wine evolved in the glass a bit, becoming spicier and more acidic even in the 10 minutes in the glass. However, I tasted this wine again on the second day and it had really evolved. There was much more acidity present, and the fruit really came forward. It was a different wine with extended breathing, and one that was more complex, longer-finished, and better balanced. At the time of the tasting, this was the overall favorite wine for Kim, and it was Rex’s favorite red. Upon re-taste, I absolutely loved it.
Grape: Nero di Troia/Uva di Troia
Uva di Troia, or Nero di Troia, is yet another grape in this tasting with a very long history in southern Italy, but of unclear origin. It may have been brought from Asia Minor, by the Greeks, or it may have originated in Troia (thus the name) – a commune in Puglia originally founded by Diomedes, of Trojan War fame. Of course, Diomedes and Troia being Greek, both could be true (more here). The grape yields dry wines with low acidity and higher alcohol.
Wine: Botromagno Nero di Troia Murgia Rosso IGP 2010
100% Uva di Troia. Hand-harvested grapes are fermented and aged (20 months) in Stainless Steel, 6 months in bottle before release. Botromagno is a merger between a private winery and a local cooperative, located in Gravina in Puglia.
This wine is very tannic, but soft, with quite a lot of cherry flavor. I likened it to a Sangiovese – mainly due to the tannin and cherry - but its softness is more in keeping with a Primitivo (which Botromagno also produces), as Bob suggested. This wine felt very “casual” to our tasters, and it seems that everyone wanted food with it; there were suggestions for dried meats, fatty/buttery items (always Evan’s suggestion!), and cheese steak. Any of these would have been nice with the wine. This was Joe’s and Mike’s favorite wine, and the preferred red of Taylor, Paul, and Milton.
Be sure to join us for our next tasting on October 22nd, where we will learn about obscure grapes of France!